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Housemarque, while an established studio that has developed quality games for years, is not a household name. Known primarily for Resogun and Nex Machina, Returnal is by far their most ambitious title yet and incredibly unique to boot. When Housemarque first explained Returnal as taking their shooter pedigree into a third-person action game, many questioned how it would fare. So did they hit their mark and elevate themselves into the conversation of top-tier PlayStation developers? Allow me to state my case.
Returnal begins with a cryptic flashback and a crash landing onto Atropos, a brooding, mysterious planet teaming with dangerous creatures. Armed with nothing more than a pistol, you set off to uncover the mystery of not only Atropos, but your own past.
Returnal’s design elements are a mix of well-established genres. The two core inspirations are shoot-em-ups (or SHMUPs) and roguelikes, but it throws a few Soulslike elements into the mix for good measure. Each time you spawn is referred to as the beginning of a new cycle, in which you will have a pistol and none of the items you’d collected during your last cycle. You will also spawn back at your ship and its crash location. As you explore further, you will gain gear and weaponry that aid you in tackling greater challenges, and enable you to progress further through the world. However, should you die, you lose all of it, with the exception of a few permanent equipment unlocks that aid in world traversal. There’s a tremendous amount of nuance to the game’s design which I will expound upon over the course of this review.
Upon initially venturing out, the quality of the environmental design becomes apparent immediately, and is maintained through each of the game’s six biomes. Each area feels full of life with surroundings that respond to you. From glowing fauna that reacts as you move past it, creatures that disperse as you disturb them, and some of the best particle effects and volumetric fog/lighting I’ve ever seen in a game, Atropos feels alive. Throughout the biomes you’ll also experience a wide-range of environments including a mars-like wasteland, snow-filled caverns, a dense marsh, and even an underwater installation. For a studio that has made its name developing two-dimensional shooters, the attention to detail on display here is rather jaw-dropping. In fact my only complaint is that unlike most of the big PlayStation titles nowadays, Returnal does not offer a photo mode.
Further accentuating Atropos’s design is 3D sound is incredibly well-implemented. Environmental sounds ranging from water droplets, to wind noise, to branches breaking under your boots, are delivered with exceptional clarity. Of course, they also provide you with vital information on enemy attacks and movement, which are critical to your survival. To top it all off is a fittingly moody soundtrack that is always present, but never intrusive. Honestly, I’m not sure who at Housemarque was responsible for the audio direction, but they deserve a raise because it’s simply exceptional. With all of that in mind, I highly recommend playing Returnal with a quality headset or surround sound system.
Each of the biomes encourage exploration, but be warned, they are filled to the brim with creatures that can end your cycle faster than you can blurt out an expletive.
Enemies in Returnal come in all shapes and sizes, but each can be exceedingly deadly if you’re not careful. Referring back to the shoot-em-up inspirations, attacks range from particle waves to lasers, rings, missiles, and more. Further compounding your struggles in maneuvering through all of those, is an intelligent mix of enemy tactics. For instance, you may simultaneously encounter flying enemies, a massive creature that wants to smash you to a pulp, and turrets in the distance that continually target you with laser beams.
Should you survive and venture far enough, you will face boss encounters that put everything you’ve learned to the test. There are five bosses in total, and each has three phases of escalating difficulty that you must overcome. As you can imagine, they are very challenging but offer a thrill of victory very reminiscent to conquering a boss in a From Software game. At times the combat scenarios can feel almost overwhelming, but fear not, as finely tuned player mechanics are here to aid you.
To tackle the demanding challenges Returnal throws at you, players are equipped with a few abilities and some of the most fluid movement I’ve ever experienced in game. Sprinting is fast, reactive, and instantaneous. I feel I need to elaborate on the latter. When you sprint in Returnal, there’s no build-up of momentum nor animation acceleration. It’s instant and flawless. In a game that holds its expectations of you so high, that’s incredibly important. You are also equipped with a dash that has a varying range dependent upon how long you hold the button. Similar to soulslike games’ roll, the dash provides you a small window where you are invulnerable (i-frames), and thus you can use it in a variety of ways. There is a short cooldown however, so you can’t simply spam it. As with much of Returnal, timing is imperative. If you’re like me, you’ll have plenty of moments where you hit the dash button and instantly know that you made a mistake.
The cherry on top of the experience is one of the best DualSense implementations so far on the PS5. There are many subtle notifications communicated to the player through the controller that become invaluable, including weapon readiness, enemy attacks, reloads, directional hints, and more. When combined with the accentuated environmental effects I noted earlier, it’s truly another showcase for what can be accomplished with the controller when a developer puts in the effort.
Of course you can’t simply dodge all of the enemies and their attacks, you need to fight back. While you begin with a basic pistol, there are several different main weapons to discover in the game, each with unique capabilities. You can only carry a single weapon at a time so learning the current environment’s enemies becomes even more important. Weapons unlock new traits over time and once unlocked, remain permanently unlocked between cycles. Thus the game encourages you to experiment and rewards you with more advanced weaponry along the way (find a high-damage Electropylon Driver and thank me later).
In addition to randomized traits, each weapon has one of several alternate attacks. These are very powerful and can be the difference between life or death. They are also extremely reminiscent of attack types from shoot-em ups such as homing lasers, particle waves, etc. thus further demonstrating Returnal’s inspiration by the genre. Finding the weapon that fits your situation, with the attributes and alt-fire you prefer, is one of the many things you’ll be on the lookout for each cycle. The use of the DualSense is once again on display here as you pull the left trigger halfway to aim with your regular fire and all the way to activate your alternate shot. It’s a creative way to provide the player different attack types without having a press a new button, and once you get a feel for it, becomes second nature.
Further complimenting your build for each cycle are consumables, artifacts, and parasites which, when combined, offer a very large mix of attribute modifications. Artifacts are valuable finds and provide the player with an attribute bonus for that entire cycle. Parasites meanwhile, offer a bonus at the cost of negatively impacting another aspect. As you will find a range of consumables, artifacts, and parasites every cycle, you are frequently making gearing decisions that best fit your playstyle and the challenges you are currently facing.
After you die and begin a new cycle, no aspects of your build are maintained. As someone who grew up with the most challenging games of the 8 and 16-bit eras, this felt very familiar. However, it can be a little jarring for players who are used to most modern roguelikes which allow you to slowly become stronger between runs. Returnal expects you to improve by simply broadening your understanding of the enemies and their attack styles, something we don’t see too often nowadays. The mentality of not being afraid of death, and in some instances embracing it, feels almost foreign in today’s market. However in the case of Returnal, I feel it’s mostly a positive aspect.
Returnal features a very unique approach to level design and progression. It is primarily broken into two acts with each act containing three biomes. What’s most notable is that until you complete a full act, your starting location each cycle will be the same. There are a variety of shortcuts that you can unlock along the way, but they are inconsistent in their effectiveness. This is partially due to the game’s randomized, procedural generation of the levels, but also due to some questionable design decisions. For instance, if you die fighting the second biome’s boss, you can run to battle him again with generally little interference as there is a portal in that biome that takes you directly to him. However, returning to the third biome’s boss is a much greater challenge as there is no portal, and always a wealth of challenging enemies along the way. While a certain amount of randomness is expected in a roguelike, a few more consistent approaches to world traversal would have been appreciated.
So then, just how difficult is Returnal in the grand scope of the modern gaming industry? That seems to be the foremost discussion point on the game and honestly, one I find a little exhausting. Yes, the game is challenging, and far more so than most major games that release in today’s industry. As I’ve described, it’s also rather unique so it’s difficult to put context around it. It’s a much faster game than the standard bearer of this conversation, Dark Souls, and requires far quicker reaction times. But when compared to a shooter like Cuphead, it’s also significantly different given the 3D world. Simply put, it requires you to be fast, precise, and quick-thinking. If you struggle with the games widely considered to be difficult in today’s age, then you’ll likely struggle here. As someone who truly enjoys challenging games, grew up playing SHMUPs of all sorts, and adores the aforementioned titles, I found Returnal to be right in-line.
Perhaps my largest gripe with Returnal is there being no way to maintain your run/cycle between play sessions. While this is true of most roguelikes, the issue here is that each run can last for hours. So with no way to effectively “pause”, you’re left with only two options. Either you leave the game paused and your PS5 on for extended periods of time, or you use the rest mode feature of the PS5 (which is actually recommended by Housemarque). But what I have found, along with many others, is that rest mode can be inconsistent.
I had an instance where I was about two hours into a cycle, used rest mode, and when I turned my PS5 back on the game had crashed. Thus I lost that cycle’s progress entirely. I even found that for whatever reason, using rest mode stopped trophy recognition and so I’m missing several trophies from the middle of the game that I completed. They only began working again after I fully shut the game down and relaunched it. I also have to mention that I had the game crash once mid-run which again, I don’t seem to be alone in when discussing with my peers. Given the game’s design elements, I’m not advocating for respawn points or anything of the like as I feel that would be detrimental. But there should be a way to pause a run without fear of losing progress.
Adding to the mysterious nature of Returnal is a cryptic narrative that evolves as you progress. In addition to finding mystifying messages scattered throughout the environment, intermittently you will experience brief, first-person narrative sections in a house that slowly explain the mystery surrounding Selene and her flashbacks. These interactive story moments are memorable, and by the end, you are painted a full picture of past events. Selene’s character development, her need to get to the core of her emotional struggles, and the trauma that caused it are moving. And to be honest, the ending struck a chord with me more than I had expected the game to provide.
I’ve commented several times now about the mysterious nature of the game so I want to elaborate a little in that respect. Returnal, more than any game in my recent memory, feels as though it takes you on true, science-fiction journey. Exploring Atropos is intoxicating, and even after a several hour session one evening, I woke up with nothing on my mind but jumping right back in. It contains an indescribable quality that keeps you coming back, encourages you to keep pushing on, exploring, discovering. Those types of traits are rare but should be celebrated, and in this instance it speaks to the quality with which Housemarque has crafted the game world. I often talk about escapism in gaming, and Returnal overwhelmingly captures that essence.
In an industry overflowing with sequels, copycats, and remakes, Returnal is a beacon of originality. It’s a stunningly beautiful title with mechanics that are polished to a fine sheen, thus making it an absolute joy to play. A few small design decisions and hiccups hinder it slightly, but not enough to be truly detrimental. Returnal stands as a testament to how talented Housemarque is, and I applaud them for taking the risk to create something so unique. So then, do they now deserve to be mentioned alongside the top developers on PlayStation with this effort? Affirmative.